Revelation 20:1-6 describes a period known as the millennial kingdom, when Christ will reign over all as the King of kings and Lord of lords. During the message today we will talk about what that kingdom will look like. As you can imagine, it will be very different from our current world. But first, I want to acknowledge the various ways these verses have been interpreted throughout church history.
Out of all the verses in the Bible, there are few passages that have produced more debate among Christians than Revelation 20:1-6. Theologians have wrestled with the question of how we ought to understand these events. What kind of kingdom should we expect? There are three major views that have been offered. I will try to summarize those views, and briefly evaluate each position. We should point out that while our view of the end times is an important doctrine, there are good, Bible believing Christians who take different views on this issue. This is not one of those critical areas where a person’s salvation is at stake. I have good friends I love as brothers in Christ who hold another perspective on end-times theology. That’s okay. We can have good-spirited debate with one another without becoming contentious or argumentative. But I think there are very good reasons for embracing the view that our church has taken on the future.
One view of the kingdom is that it’s already here.
This is called amillennialism, which means there will not be a literal kingdom of God on the earth. It takes these events symbolically. They talk about a spiritual reign of Christ, rather than an earthly reign. It isn’t about what happens in the future, but what is happening today in the lives of God’s people during the present church age. Christ is reigning in our hearts, and reigning in heaven at the Father’s right hand. Those who hold to this position would say that the number 1,000 years represents a long period of time. In a sense, Satan has been subdued so that the gospel can go forth to the nations, leading men and women to a knowledge of the Savior.
This view was made popular by church leaders like Origin (185–254 AD) and Augustine (354–430) who employed an allegorical approach to interpreting biblical prophecy. It is a view that became very popular throughout church history and it is held by several Christian denominations today.
They would say that the OT promises made to Israel are transferred to the church. Christ isn’t going to rule over the nations from Jerusalem, but he reigns from heaven. The scattered tribes of Israel won’t be regathered to inherit the land, but God’s people will inherit the earth. Prophecies about the second coming are reinterpreted and reapplied.
Amillennialists appeal to passages like Matthew 4:7 were Jesus says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” If it is at hand, doesn’t that suggest that the kingdom has already begun? They answer “yes,” we don’t have to wait for it to arrive, the kingdom is now. But, when Jesus made that statement he was here, on the earth, standing before the people. Truly the kingdom was near. The Son of David, the Messiah, the King of kings was in their midst offering words of life to them. It doesn’t get any nearer than this. Sadly, however, the majority of the crowds turned him away and failed to embrace Jesus as their king.
We also need to understand that the word “kingdom” is used in different ways throughout the Bible. In places it describes the Messianic Kingdom. In other places it describes the rule of God over all the universe. At times it speaks of our deliverance from the domain of darkness and our entrance into a relationship with the Lord. Some of the blessings of the future age are experienced by believers today, when we come to receive Christ as Savior, but even so, the fullness of his kingdom is still waiting to be revealed.
I want to say something positive about each of these views, and so one takeaway here is the emphasis that it places on the sovereignty of God. Christ is king. It’s not just that he will be king one day, but he is the King of kings and Lord of lords. This is important for us to remember. We can sometimes lose sight of this, when it feels like the world is falling apart around us.
But there are problems with the amillennial position. It isn’t the most natural way to read these verses in Revelation 20. There is nothing in the context that would suggest we should allegorize these events, or understand them in some special way other than described.
All of the prophecies from the OT that spoke of the first coming of Christ were fulfilled literally. He truly was born of a virgin, in the city of Bethlehem, worshiped by shepherds and kings, and was eventually be rejected by men. If all of those prophecies came to pass exactly the way the prophets predicted, doesn’t it seem reasonable we should interpret the prophecies surrounding the second coming of Christ to be fulfilled in the same way?
There is also an issue of God’s faithfulness at stake. If the Lord’s promises to people like Abraham and David and Isaiah are meant to be reinterpreted in some other way than what they understood, how can we trust the promises he made to us? We believe that God keeps his promises. He means what he says and says what he means. His Word is faithful and true.
Another huge problem with amillennialism is how it interprets the binding of Satan in verses 2-3. The apostle John uses powerful phrases in the passage. The devil is seized, placed in chains, hurled into prison, locked away in the abyss and the doors are sealed behind him. It’s not merely that his influence is weakened or that his activities are curbed. The point is that he is completely removed from the earth during the millennial reign, unable to disturb the nations any longer. It’s very clear, as we look at the condition of the world around us, that this hasn’t happened yet. The apostle Paul tells us (Ephesians 6:11) to put on the full armor of God so that we can stand against the schemes of the devil. The apostle Peter warns us (1 Pet. 5:8) to be on the alert because the devil prowls around the like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour. This doesn’t sound like someone who has been locked away in the abyss. Scripture tells us that Jesus accomplished the decisive victory at the cross, but the final victory has yet to be won. In the meantime, Satan is still very active blinding the people of this earth trying his best to keep them from coming to the knowledge of the truth.
This is one perspective that Christians take to our passage in Rev. 20: the kingdom is already here. But this passage seems be pointing to something else.
Another view is that church is in the process of building God’s kingdom.
This is called postmillennialism, which means that Christ will come after the church has successfully evangelized the world. It believes in a literal reign of Christ on the earth, but says that it is up to us to make it happen. According to this view, the world around us will gradually be transformed as the gospel is carried forth to all the corners of the earth. One brick at a time, this kingdom is being built. In the process, society will change for the better. We will be able to eradicate evils like poverty, and disease. Corruption and greed will virtually disappear. Little by little, the work will continue until the vast majority of the population comes to faith receiving Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Under the influence of the Holy Spirit, the nations will work together to create a perfect utopia on the earth. And then, after a golden age of human civilization has been reached, lasting 1000 years, Jesus will (then) return to a world that will welcome him with open arms. This is the vision of postmillennialism.
This view was held by theologians like Charles Hodge, B.B. Warfield, and A.H. Strong in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. This was a time of great progress in science, industry, and technology. Ammillenialists were very passionate about social reform and social issues. They were optimistic about the condition of the world, hoping to see steady improvement not only in outward standard of living but also inwardly in the spiritual condition of mankind. The postmillennial perspective gained popularity in the United States, until World War I, when this optimism was suddenly shattered. It was clear that the world is not getting better and better, but the human heart is just as sinful today as ever. New advancements in technology and education are good, but they also brought new weapons and even greater potential for destruction.
This view is not as popular today, but there are some who hold to these ideas. They would look at some of the parables of Jesus to support their position. Jesus said the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, smaller than all the other kinds of seeds, but once fully grown it becomes a mighty tree where the birds of the air can come and nest in its branches (Mt. 13:31-32). Doesn’t this suggest that God’s kingdom must gradually increase throughout history until the whole world is fully Christianized? Not exactly. If we look at the context, that’s not quite the point that Jesus is making. He was telling the crowds that though he and his following didn’t look very impressive at the present, one day his power would be felt in all the earth.
One positive thing we can say about the postmillennial perspective is that the power of God truly is at work in the world through the church. Christians should be bold in carrying the gospel into the world. That’s our mission. The Lord will use us to impact the people around us for good. We are the salt and light of the earth, which means we should strive to make the world a better place.
The problem with postmillennialism is that it doesn’t line up with reality. We want to have an optimistic outlook on things, but must also be realistic at the same time. Can we honestly say that in our lifetime we have seen the world improving spiritually, morally, ethically? Are nations more at peace? Is there greater justice? Are people in general more decent and virtuous in their character than in the past? When we pick up the newspaper are the headlines filled with heartwarming stories informing us of all the good being accomplished in this world? No. The reality is, things will get worse before they get better.
There are many other passages that tell us what to expect as we get closer to the end of the age, and it isn’t good. The apostle Paul warns, in 2 Timothy 3:1–5 (NASB95)
1 But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. 2 For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, 4 treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; Avoid such men as these.
Jesus told his disciples to expect opposition. If the world has rejected me, they will also reject you. If they persecuted me, you will also endure persecution. It’s tough to live out your faith and to share the gospel. But in spite of this, he urged his followers to remain faithful, and promised the Holy Spirit will give them strength to carry out their ministry (John 15:18-27)
Postmillennialism says that Christ will come after we have built his kingdom, but again our passage in Revelation 20 describes something else.
The other view is that Jesus will bring his kingdom when he comes.
This is called premillennialism, meaning that Christ must return before the millennial age begins. After a period of great tribulation, the Lord will descend from heaven to judge the earth. Satan will be bound. The wicked will be overthrown. The scattered tribes of Israel will turn to the Lord in faith and will be gathered to the land promised to their fathers. They will finally become a kingdom of priests, leading the nations in the worship of the one true God. Messiah will reign from the throne of David in Jerusalem establishing an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity on the earth, and the people of God from all the ages will reign with him. The world will be changed by his presence, both physically and spiritually. Sickness and poverty will be forgotten. It will be a time of rejoicing, a time of comfort, and a time of obedience to the Lord. At the end of the 1,000 years, the final judgment will take place and the millennial age give way to the creation of a new heaven and new earth.
Many of the earliest church leaders held a premillennial view of the end times including: Ignatius of Antioch (50-150 AD), Papias (80-163 AD), Justin Martyr (100 AD), Irenaeus (200 AD) and Tertullian (150-225 AD). They held to what is called “historic premillennialism.” More recently, the view has been popularized by dispensational teachers like C.I. Scofield, Charles Ryrie, and D.L. Moody.
Premillennialism seeks to interpret OT promises consistently. We don’t have to allegorize the meaning of the biblical text. One day, all the words of the prophets will be fulfilled. God will accomplish everything he said he would do. Not a single promise will be left undone.
Revelation 20 is an importantly passage for premillennialists, but there are other verses throughout the Bible that speak of Christ coming in glory to reign upon the earth. Zechariah 14:9–11 (NIV84) says,
9 The Lord will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one Lord, and his name the only name… Jerusalem will be raised up and remain in its place, from the Benjamin Gate to the site of the First Gate, to the Corner Gate, and from the Tower of Hananel to the royal winepresses. 11 It will be inhabited; never again will it be destroyed. Jerusalem will be secure.
A premillennial understand of Revelation 20:1-6 should fill us with a longing for God’s kingdom to invade this earth. As Jesus taught his disciples to pray, we desire his kingdom to come and his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. There are a number of events that must take place before we get there, like the rapture of the church and the great tribulation that will fall upon the rebellious world. But we are confident that this day is coming, because the plans and purposes of God never fail. We celebrate blessings of that future age which we are able to experience today, through Christ our Savior. We also look forward to the fulfillment of all the promises made through Scripture, in the Old Testament and New. God is faithful, and will bring his work to completion. In the meantime, we dare not retreat behind the walls of our churches in pessimism or despair. We strive to reach those around us with the light of the gospel, living out our faith, until the end of this age comes. The Savior who will one day overthrow the forces of darkness is working through his people, giving us strength and victory in our lives each day. “For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever, Amen!”